Following the release of its Draft Environmental Impact Study [DEIS] regarding the future of the Green Bank Observatory, the National Science Foundation held a public comment meeting November 30 to allow individuals an opportunity to share concerns and opinions about the proposed changes to GBO’s funding.
In response, more than 150 community members, GBO staff, WWU students and faculty, as well as representatives from the offices of Senator Joe Manchin, Congressman Evan Jenkins and Senator Shelley Moore Capito filled the GBO science center’s auditorium.
Before yielding the floor to the public, NSF program director for GBO Edward Ajhar and NSF environmental compliance officer Kristen Hamilton gave an overview of the DEIS and explained the process which will lead to the final EIS.
“The purpose of the proposed action is to substantially reduce NSF’s contribution to the funding of the Green Bank Observatory and there’s a need for that,” Ajhar said. “The NSF is responsible for maintaining a balanced research portfolio in the scientific community for reviews and surveys. As indicated, the scientific capabilities of Green Bank are lower in priority than other scientific capabilities that NSF funds.”
In the proposal presented to the NSF by the portfolio review committee, five options were laid out for the future of the GBO: A) Collaboration with interested parties for continued science- and education-focused operations with reduced NSF funding; B) Collaboration with interested parties for operation as a technology and education park; C) Mothballing of facilities; D) Demolition and site restoration; and E) No Action – continued NSF investment for science-focused operations.
After the exhaustive efforts put into creating the DEIS, the NSF concluded that the preferred alternative is Alternative A.
Ajhar explained that with Alternative A, it is imperative that the NSF and GBO find qualified collaborators to assist with the funding of the site.
“That can only be implemented if collaborating parties come forward with viable plans to provide additional non-NSF funding in support of science and education focused operations,” he said.
Hamilton added that the NSF is actively seeking collaborators to make Alternative A a reality.
“The viability of the preferred alternative is dependent on the availability of qualified collaborations determined through a parallel NSF process,” she said. “What does this mean? NSF is actively exploring potential collaborators and we have been for some time. This is a separate process – separated from the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] and the environmental review process, but it will inform whether the preferred alternative continues to be viable as we move forward.”
While Alternative A is the preferred option, the NSF will continue to research the other options as it creates the final EIS.
More than 40 individuals spoke about the GBO and how it has impacted their lives – whether they were students entering the astronomy or STEM field, professors in STEM fields, GBO employees or Green Bank area residents – the auditorium was filled with gratitude to the NSF for the process of creating the EIS, concern for a few oversights in the draft and an appreciation of what the GBO means to so many people.
GBO engineer Carla Beaudet expressed her thanks to the NSF for the effort that was put into creating the draft document. At last year’s public meeting, Beaudet said she was concerned the document would be identical to the EIS for Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Instead, the document is a reflection of the comments gathered as part of the process.
“I would like to thank the members of the EIS committee for doing a great job on the socioeconomic impact section of the Green Bank Draft EIS,” Beaudet said. “When I addressed this committee last year, I was afraid that in a cut and paste world, that section of the report would come out looking like the socioeconomic impact section of the Arecibo EIS which listed minimal impact.
“I’m very happy to say it’s clear that you listened to the outpouring of concern and disbelief from the community,” she continued. “That which is at stake is well reflected in the Draft EIS, both in detail and also in the executive summary. By considering the impacts to West Virginia, Pocahontas County and the Arbovale/Green Bank areas separately, you did not sweep the worst of the impact under the rug as would have happened if only West Virginia was considered as a whole.”
Also addressing specific sections of the document, GBO education officer Sue Ann Heatherly stated that she felt the educational programs were under-represented and that several historically integral structures were not treated as such in the proposed changes.
“The Green Bank Observatory education programs are listed and then they are referred to several times in the whole document, but they are completely under reported,” Heatherly said. “When comments were sent in last time around, I sent a seven page detailed description of all the educational programs that we do that you can find in the comments from last time. I think they need to be addressed in the final report because it’s a lot bigger than was stated.”
Heatherly added that in another section, the telescopes were discussed and demolishing was suggested as a possible action – and action with which she did not agree.
“Regarding historic properties, the 43-meter was listed as one that should be kept but yet, the Tatel telescope was listed as one that could be potentially demolished, and I thought that was odd,” she said. “That’s the first one here. It’s the one that Frank Drake used, so I don’t know what rationale went into that, but I’d like to see a response to that.”
Referring to the section of the document which showed where commenters were from, GBO astronomer Ryan Lynch said that the scope of impact of the final decision is much larger than the draft EIS described.
“I wanted to address the region of influence on how that was defined for the education component of socioeconomic impacts,” Lynch said. “There were thirty-two states and territories of the U.S. that were represented during the public scoping period and thirteen countries other than the U.S. Forty-four percent of commenters were outside the state of West Virginia. Sixty-one comments – ten percent – were outside of the U.S. and sixty-seven percent of all comments dealt with either research or education, so my understanding of the region of influence was defined too narrowly.
“I think that demonstrates that Green Bank has an impact which is national and really global,” he continued. “If you really want to assess the impact on education and on employment, you need to include the entire country and the entire world.”
Many spoke about the educational opportunities offered at the GBO, including several students and faculty members from West Virginia University.
WVU associate professor Micky Holcomb said she may not be an astronomer or teach astronomy, but as a member of the science department as a materials physicists, she has seen the impact GBO has had on the university.
“In the eight-and-a-half years I’ve been at WVU, I’ve seen the incredible impact that the Green Bank Observatory has had on our department’s research program,” she said. “Since 2006, our astrophysics department has grown from one to six and that group brings in more research dollars per capita than any other in our department.”
Holcomb said the astrophysics department received the Frontier Center Award in physics and the department has become “one of the most transformative science programs of the broader physics community.”
“There are currently fifteen graduate students working with the group, the majority of which are involved in research with the Green Bank Observatory,” she added. “Green Bank Observatory is the premier science facility in the state and is critical for both WVU’s research profile and education that it remains open at current funding levels.”
WVU student body president Blake Humphrey echoed some of Holcomb’s points, adding that the future of education in West Virginia is dependent upon the GBO remaining operational.
“To speak of the student impact – and my friend from WVU just touched on that – not only do we have undergraduate and graduate students here at the Green Bank Telescope who are working in partnership with Green Bank, but we also have research exploration, innovation, education, training and life-changing experiences that can change someone’s trajectory,” Humphrey said. “My experience to see the Green Bank Telescope and take a peek at it only emphasizes to me the importance of its uniqueness in West Virginia. The activities that are ongoing here at the Green Bank Telescope can continue to inspire because of the fact that – as it says outside on the wall – ‘The universe is whispering to us,’ and no doubt, the Green Bank Telescope is listening.
“In Morgantown, we say ‘at West Virginia University, Mountaineers go first,’” he continued. “And today, I think that we should all say as West Virginians, as a science community and beyond that, the Green Bank Telescope has gone first and, by gosh, the Green Bank Telescope must continue to go first.”
WVU sophomore Olivia Young spoke passionately about how she realized she wanted to become an astrophysicists after attending the West Virginia Youth Science Camp at GBO. Through her experience at that camp, she had hands-on experience with the telescopes, which lit a spark within her to follow the path she is on now.
“My fellow undergraduates, professors and graduate students and I aren’t the only ones that are having these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and experiences the GBT offers to us,” Young said. “Through groups like SPOT, which is a scientific outreach team and PSC which is Pulsar Search Collaboratory, we go to elementary, middle and high schools throughout the state and bring the wonders of the universe and the passion of scientific discovery to young, brilliant minds of our state.
“The impact of the Green Bank Observatory is far-reaching and vitally important not only to the progression of scientific research, but also to development of the youth of our state,” she continued. “I can say with absolute confidence that because I’m a West Virginian I am a scientist, and I’m a scientist because of the GBT.”
WVU astronomy professor and former GBO employee Kathryn Williamson attributed her career to her time at Green Bank, adding that her students and future science teachers have been impacted, as well.
“Green Bank Observatory is basically why I’m at WVU,” she said. “There’s no way that I would have the skills in order to give back to the students at WVU and the students in our state without Green Bank Observatory. While I was here, we also started the Science Public Outreach Team [SPOT]. We trained dozens of college students around the state – all operated out of Green Bank – so we’re giving back. We’re inspiring over four thousand students every year in K through twelve audiences.
“The biggest impact is on the college students,” she continued. “Without any prompting, our ambassadors, our future educators – our education majors – they’ve just said on their own volition, ‘I was afraid to teach science and now because of coming to Green Bank, because of participating in SPOT, I’m not.’” They’re excited to teach science now. That’s one of the greatest investments we can make in this state.”
Speaking to the impact of loss of educational services and the STEM programs offered to students in West Virginia, head of operations of the GBT Toney Minter said the draft document was an understatement.
“It states that in the worse case scenarios that the loss of STEM education here will be adverse to the county,” he said. “This is really an understatement. If you look at the number of astronomers in the United States, you could estimate that’s about one out of every 100,000 people actively in astronomy, working on advanced degrees or with an advanced degree. Of that only a quarter of those are women. But from Pocahontas County alone, I can think of, off the top of my head, two women who’ve gone through the program since I’ve started working there. Our county only has about 8,000 people. That’s one out of every 4,000 [people]. That’s what this STEM education program is doing.
“I just want to really share that ‘adverse’ is an understatement for ‘catastrophic’ if we lose these programs.”
While most comments addressed what the GBO has meant to individuals and education or the specifics of the DEIS, a few people asked about the future and what will happen once the final decision has been made.
GBO staff member Marty Bloss said he is concerned about how unclear the draft document is when it comes to discussing how much money is needed from collaborators to ensure that Alternative A is viable. He also spoke about the financials moving forward.
“I was struck by a very complete document that addresses many issues and leaves many very big issues completely unaddressed,” he said. “In particular, there’s discussions about potential moveable facilities, modification of facilities, but there are no budget numbers given for any of these things and I think in a view of transparency, when a decision is happening concerning facilities versus costs of operations, there needs to be some transparency to how those numbers are derived, the assumptions behind them and how they play out going forward.”
While the NSF is still actively searching for collaborators, Bloss said it should be possible to estimate a budget moving forward and reiterated that it is an important part of the process.
“You can infer a budget sort of, if you look at the economic impact,” he said. “We’re talking three, four million dollars potentially in some of these impacts and there’s no mention of how that is to be funded. One would assume it would have nothing to do with our operational funding, but in an atmosphere of silence, it’s an unknown and I think that needs to be shared more broadly.”
Concluding, Bloss said that while financials are important and keeps the facility operating, it is also important to remember the impact made on the scientific community if the GBO does not continue to operate as it currently does.
“Right now, everything is about revenue and finances,” he said. “They’re very important. That’s what keeps the lights on, but science is what drives the site and there needs to be a metric as we go forward that looks at the changes in the science community and our contributions to those changes as another metric into the success of the observatory in whichever of these forms that it takes.”
The NSF thanked all commenters for their input and provided information on the process leading to the final EIS.
The public comment period is open until January 8, 2018 and submissions may be made by email to envcomp-AST-greenbank @nsf.gov or by mail to Ms. Elizabeth Pentecost, Division of Astronomical Sciences, National Science Foundation, 2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22314.
Once the 60-day comment period is over, the NSF will compile all the information it has received and prepare the final EIS. The target publication date for the final EIS is in the fall of 2018 and the Record of Decision is set to be filed by early 2019.
For more information and updates on the EIS, visit www.nsf.gov/AST